Glib statements about human behaviour are often notoriously unreliable. It is impossible to subject human beings to the sort of objective testing which accompanies scientific experimentation. This lack of objectivity makes many observations about human behaviour unprovable and often outright dubious.
How languages affect the way we and the organisations we are part of is a good example of the inability to be certain about any tentative conclusions that are made. Language is part of people’s culture. In fact, they are indivisible. But what happens when a person is bilingual? How do people reflect the language when they are fluent in more than one?
Is Bilingualism an Advantage or Just a Response to Necessity?
Some research into language use suggests that bilingualism or multilingualism gives that person a cognitive advantage. They say that switching from one language to another is a form of mental athletics. Just like physical training it gives the person an advantage over the monolingual speaker. All sorts of claims in fact have been made about bilingual speakers having better resistance to dementia, cognitive ability and better job and career prospects. Whether these claims are true or not is a matter of conjecture. As the first paragraph of this article alludes, to claims like these are really hard to prove.
Bilingualism is not Unusual and may be of Survival Value
It could be said that bilingualism and multilingualism tend to be most prevalent where these skills are necessary rather than something which is a personal choice.
Scandinavians are a typical example of a very bilingual population. Many Swedes speak both Swedish and English and may also understand Danish or Norwegian too. The same applies to the populations of Norwegians, Danes and Finns, whose languages are not spoken anywhere else. Scandinavia is a relatively affluent and progressive part of the world and many Scandinavians choose to travel and do business outside their homelands. Bilingualism is a necessity, not a luxury.
Being bilingual, or even multilingual, is, in fact, nothing unusual in many countries. The writer of this article once taught in a school in Australia’s Northern Territory which had a large percentage of indigenous Aboriginal students. Many of those indigenous students could speak 4 or 5 different languages or dialects, despite the fact that their overall educational achievement was much lower on average than that of their non-indigenous Australian contemporaries. The non-indigenous students, on the other hand, were very resistant to learning any language at all other than their own, despite the fact that many of them went on to university. Again, the indigenous population picked up the languages of their neighbours in the remote part of Australia that they originated from because it was important for them to communicate. This was not the case for the English speaking majority of students who had no need to learn another language.
Bilingual Speakers Switch their Meanings According to Context
Other research seems to suggest that the very language one uses affects the way we see the world and that bilingual speakers switch this world view depending on the context they are in.
One example of this cultural dichotomy is the difference between the world view of German speakers and that of English speakers. It has been claimed according to psychological research that German speakers tend to be more holistic when they think and speak while English speakers tend to focus on the actions involved rather than the goal of the actions.
An example that has been given of this difference in the way German and English speakers think is when they are asked to say what is happening when presented with someone doing something. The German speakers on the whole comment on not just the action but the goal of the action. For example, if the picture shows a person walking in a street, the typical German speaker’s response is to say that they are walking to their car or a shop or whatever. The English speaker concentrates on the fact that the person is walking, but misses out where they are walking to.
According to the research, this is the typical pattern of the monolingual speaker of either German or English. However, when presented with the same question, the bilingual speaker will automatically switch their focus depending on the context they are in. The researchers say that when they pose the same question as has been already mentioned to a German/ English bilingual speaker in a German context they use the holistic response that is seen more commonly with monolingual German speakers. The opposite happens when the same bilingual speakers are asked similar questions in an English speaking context. They focus on the actions and not the goal.